I’ve been recently reading the book Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan by Deborah Shamoon, which looks at the culture surrounding and created by girls in the early 20th century, which includes magazines that were basically the precursors to the manga magazines of today, and bridges the gap between that period and modern shoujo.
One aspect it talks about that was common at the time was “Class S,” where female teenage classmates had close, intimate relationships with each other, and which became a common subject of fiction for girls’ magazines at the time. These could be interpreted as lesbian but at the time were considered an innocent substitute for male-female relationships (which were so forbidden at the time even seeing boys and girls together was scandalous), with the idea that these “S” relationships would be outgrown as girls became adults and married.
When it comes to more recent anime and manga portraying girls together in early 20th century Japan, the first series I think of is Taisho Baseball Girls, which is a series about girls living in the Taisho Era (1912-1926) who learn to play baseball in spite of the fact that girls weren’t supposed to engage in athleticism. It’s an excellent series, and even after reading Passionate Friendship I still hold that opinion, but it does prompt me to look at the series in different ways.
One aspect that Shamoon talks about is how some of the popular images of the “Class S” relationship would frequently portray one girl dressed in western clothing, and one in Japanese clothing. As Taisho Baseball Girls is set in a specific time period, school is portrayed as an environment where some where the sailor uniforms that are ubiquitous today while others wear kimono, but with “Class S” in mind I have to wonder if there’s supposed to be a bit of subtext in that general direction. The opening to the anime leaves it open enough that it looks like it might be just a close friendship, or something more.
Another plot point in the show is the fact that the main character, Suzukawa Koume, is betrothed to a boy who works at her father’s restaurant. In fact, one of the things I really like about Taisho Baseball Girls is that it contextualizes its feminist angle by showing how the characters both defy and are a part of their culture at the time, and that arranged marriages are one face of that. Koume and her future husband are shown to get along and even have feelings for each other, and yet at the same time there’s this idea that this is Koume’s fate, even if it looks to be a fairly happy one. Compounding the complexity of this situation as well is the fact that the idea of romantic or spiritual love (ren’ai) was only recently introduced to Japan at the time (also mentioned by Shamoon), and so there’s this mix of duty, desire, innocence, conformity, defiance, and more, with a great deal of hindsight.
It really makes me want to watch through Taisho Baseball Girls again every time I learn more about Japanese history and the Taisho period.